English Speakers Desired: America ’s ESL Challenge
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Sun Aug 12 13:48:37 UTC 2007
English Speakers Desired: America's ESL Challenge
By Khalil Abdullah, New America Media
WASHINGTON—Had President Bush been able to enact an immigration bill
that legalized undocumented immigrants this year, the result would
have produced "a one-time shock to the ESL
(English-as-a-second-language) training system" in the United States,
according to Michael Fix. Fix co-authored "Adult English Language
Instruction in the United States: Determining Need and Investing
Wisely," a report issued by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). The
report estimates that an additional $200 million annually, for six
years, would have to be spent in the United States to attain English
proficiency for the country's 5.8 million adult lawful permanent
residents (LPRs). The combined state and federal government spending
on English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs is already more than $1
Yet, assuming the passage of immigration reform at some date, it will
most certainly include the condition that undocumented workers learn
English to qualify for citizenship. Using assumptions about the
current undocumented immigrant population, the report estimates "that
approximately 6.4 million unauthorized immigrants in the country will
require English language instruction in order to gain the necessary
skills to pass the naturalization exam and obtain LPR status or to
fully participate in the country's civic life."
It is the 6.4 million cohort, when added to the 5.8 million LPRs,
which gives pause for serious concern about the capacity and
effectiveness of an ESL system that already has glaring structural
flaws. "In the event of a legalization program for today's
unauthorized population, we project an increase of $2.9 billion a year
in new costs for six years .… we assume that none of the $1 billion in
current funding would serve the legalizing population," the report
In addition, the report noted that 1.8 million immigrants enter the
United States annually, many with limited English skills, and few
educational options are available once they arrive. They add to the
already 23 million Americans who reported themselves as having limited
English proficiency in 2005.
The timing of the report's release speaks to the possibility of
elevating the public discourse about ESL funding needs before
comprehensive immigration reform is back before Congress, and as
changes are made to other federal programs that could impact
immigration issues. Demetrios Papademetriou, MPI's co-founder and
president, moderated a July 30 panel discussion about the report's
findings and recommendations.
Papademetriou framed the necessity for the United States to more fully
fund ESL initiatives as an economic imperative in order to remain
globally competitive. "There is no real growth in the native [U.S.]
labor force in the next five to 10 years," he said, adding that, in
combination with other factors -- including the impending retirement
of the baby-boom generation -- the projected negative outcomes without
an English-literate populace should force revision of laissez-faire
attitudes toward ESL programs.
Papademetriou explained that the notion of viewing ESL funding as a
benevolent or charitable act misses "the consuming economic
self-interest" that should be driving funding scenarios at the
federal, state, and local level.
As a simplistic example, a more literate workforce fills higher paying
jobs and thus produces economic benefits that ripple through the
economy. Panelists cited data that show English-literate immigrants
are lower users of social services as just one of the compelling
self-interest fiscal rationales for states to become pro-active about
better ESL funding and instruction. Non-English speakers, by contrast,
stay on welfare longer, for example.
Currently, ESL is partially funded by various federal programs,
including ones that allow states to match dollars. But states match at
varying levels; demography is changing as well. While the report
showed California facing the largest numerical ESL training challenge,
the recent, rapid influx of undocumented workers to the southeastern
United States will force that region to make hard choices about ESL
Margie McHugh, a co-author of the report, noted that the $30 billion
revenue captured by Social Security from undocumented immigrants is a
possible source of financing for ESL programs. McHugh said the $30
billion estimate is derived from census-based data calculations
between 1994 and 2004. As those funds won't be returned to individual
undocumented claimants, they could be the revenue source to fund
competitive, innovative, ESL grant awards to the states if there was
One of the systemic difficulties facing ESL, McHugh pointed out, is
the "need to professionalize a system where most teachers are part
time." The cost of that goal is captured in the MPI report's estimate
of the additional $200 million needed for ESL to minimally meet
projected demand to service the LPR community.
The report called for implementing a comprehensive system of quality
control measures of state ESL programs. "Currently, conventional
practices such as random visits, audits, and scheduled program reviews
by state monitors are not required," the report said.
One of the report's central recommendations was to "require an annual
report to Congress" on the status of ESL implementation. Congress
would then be better able to assess the intersection of immigration
issues, data, policy, and programs to plan for America's future needs.
Though America has half of the world's cities with immigrant
populations of over one million each, it is lagging behind other
countries in addressing ESL needs, according to the report.
The need for an annual Congressional report, or at the least, a
biennial one, derives in part from Fix's observation that there is "no
national language policy" in the United States. Furthermore, during
the contentious immigration debate, Fix said, "immigration integration
took a backseat during those deliberations" to politics.
In addition to Papademetriou, Fix, and McHugh, the panel was rounded
out by Brigitte Marshall, Israel David Mendoza, and Heide Spruck
Wrigley. As panelists, each brought incisive observations about the
complexities of ESL funding realties, comments about differences in
state approaches to ESL funding, and some brutal truth as well.
"Level 6," the highest rung of ESL instruction, "is not enough to
succeed in college level coursework," according to Mendoza, the
Director of the Adult Basic Education Office at the Washington State
Board for Community and Technical Colleges. In his critique of the
inadequacy of current ESL funding, he called for increased access to
the Internet for ESL programs with a compatible e-learning curriculum,
something unlikely to occur, in his opinion, until the "big players,"
like the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies, are brought into
ESL funding streams.
Marshall, who is the director of the Oakland Adult Education Program
in California, had several cautionary observations about reforming
ESL, noting, "what gets measured gets done." She spoke to the need to
move beyond simply looking at numerical aggregate ESL needs in order
to design programs that take into the account the full range of
support services often needed by ESL learners.
During the presentation, data was cited that immigrants, while
compromising 15 percent of the American work force, account for 45
percent of the low-wage workers. Unsurprisingly then, said Wrigley,
president of LiteracyWork International, there are practical ESL
innovations being implemented by corporations. She said McDonald's,
for instance, is beginning to provide Spanish language instruction for
its English-speaking personnel as well as the more traditional ESL
training for Spanish-literate ones.
Ultimately, said Wrigley, often what is underestimated is the desire
that many immigrants have to learn English, an accomplishment that the
panelists agreed is a powerful determinant of success in the United
States. "If I learn English, I can help other people just like me," is
a phrase Wrigley said she hears often. She said this desire extends
past the requirement to simply master the civics test of the
immigration exam, or the practical use of getting a job, but is rooted
strongly in the ideal of civic participation in a better America.
The report can be found at www.migrationpolicy.org.
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